An occasional column about city life
Earlier this month, my husband Ben and I were driving home and we weren’t speaking. We were utterly absorbed in a podcast playing on the car radio – a podcast with the most implausible title, “Should America Be Run By…Trader Joe’s?” As we listened, each of us came to this stark conclusion: Yes, a Trader Joe’s takeover of America makes eminent sense.
Produced and narrated by Stephen Dubner, who co-wrote (with economist Steven Levitt) the 2005 bestseller Freakonomics, the podcast presented the thesis that a Trader Joe’s business model of “choice architecture, efficiency, frugality, collaboration, and team spirit” is utterly possible for a winning enterprise. Plus, if you treat your employees well by paying them a living wage, giving them good benefits (here’s looking at you miserly owner of Battery Wharf Hotel), and allowing them to dress in a happy work uniform (Trader Joe’s employees wear Hawaiian shirts), you might succeed beyond expectations.
The podcast was the prelude to my first visit to the newest Trader Joe’s, which opened a short hop from the North End in late October. The store, located in the Seaport, is housed in a vintage brick warehouse, with high ceilings and big windows, at the corner of Thomson Place and Seaport Boulevard, a place becoming so jammed with businesses you might never imagine enough raw space for a supermarket. One of the secrets I learned from the podcast about Trader Joe’s holds that many of the traditional supermarket rules do not apply to the grocery chain.
For example, Trader Joe’s does nothing to seek publicity. The chain does not advertise on any media platform except through its own “Fearless Flyer,” a mailer circular with attitude, and by word of mouth – such as this cartload of free promotion, which, most likely, will go unnoticed by the brass at Trader Joe’s. Steven Dubner says in his podcast he tried numerous times to get someone from Joe’s to comment, no one ever called him back.
Certainly, this publicity-shun approach was true with the Seaport store. One week there were rumors, and the rumors were verified by grassroots neighborhood publications such as Caught in Southie and NorthEndWaterfront.com. Then, like magic, the store appeared. Larger media outlets, such as the Boston Globe and WBUR followed behind.
Contrast this with the new Star Market in North Station. Before the store opened, there was hoopla for weeks. I still haven’t gone in there. There’s something intimidating about buying groceries underground in an utterly terrifying-looking remade behemoth North Station. I don’t even like driving by the new hulk on Causeway Street. Indeed, ease of access seems virtually impossible because of all the vehicular, foot, construction worker and big machinery traffic swirling around the area.
This new Trader Joe’s, streamlined and simple, has no parking and sells no alcohol. Yet, the store doesn’t seem smaller than other Joe’s, although it might be an optical illusion because the warehouse ceilings are so high. Leaving the square footage for others to analyze, I’ll tell you the important stuff: the foodstuffs carried by the chain are abundantly available. During my first visit there, I was on a search mission to find two items: organic oatmeal and peppermint pretzels, a goody sold only during the holiday season. While husband and dog waited outside in a 15-minute-only parking space, I bolted through Trader Joe’s and found one of my items as well as a couple of other unnecessary things (frozen vegetable birds’ nests and scallion pancakes). I further located my husband’s favorite Joe’s cereal and his unsalted roasted almonds. The peppermint enrobed pretzels, however, eluded me.
A point made by the podcast is that Trader Joe’s also enrobes the customer in helpfulness. There are many Hawaiian shirts in the aisles to direct you to products and many more to take your money at the check-out stations. There’s hardly any waiting-in-line at TJ’s, which brings me back to the pretzels.
I decided to stand at the manager’s prominent elevated desk to ask for the snacks. When the friendly but frazzled man responded to my question, he told me he knew the treats had just come in, but he’d have to find them while I continued shopping. I turned my attention to avocadoes. A few minutes later, the manager pops up with mint cookies and says he’ll keep looking for the pretzels. He goes away and I figure he’s gone for good when he finally appears with two bags for me; he has a third bag he rips open. He invites me and a whole bunch of other customers to snag a sweet pretzel.
It’s a small courtesy, but a big brand-builder. Trader Joe’s doesn’t have to try very hard at all.
Monica Collins is a writer who lives on the Waterfront with her husband, comedy writer Ben Alper, and dog Dexter.